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Irish singer Sinead O'Connor performs at Paradiso in Amsterdam on March 3, 1988.

Irish singer Sinead O'Connor performs at Paradiso in Amsterdam on March 3, 1988.

Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns.

Sinéad O'Connor and MC Lyte's Collaboration Showed What Was Possible for Women in Hip-Hop

Sinéad O’Connor and MC Lyte’s “I Want Your Hands (On Me)” showed how a little experimentation could be a winning combo.

At face value, MC Lyte and Sinéad O’Connor are a pretty unorthodox pairing, though really they were kindred spirits. O’Connor hailed from the deceptively impoverished Dublin, while Lyte was bred from the grimy streets of Brooklyn. Individually, their music is diametrically opposed in sound. Sinéad O’Connor crafted experimental blends of alt-Rock and funk with hints of pop, and MC Lyte is as hip-hop as it gets. However, when the two joined forces on the 1988 remix to Sinéad O’Connor’s single “I Want Your Hands (On Me),” it was like night and day met in an eclipse. A moment that changed the course for women in hip-hop simply by giving them another avenue to explore.

Sinéad’s entry point into the American music industry arguably held a significant degree of privilege (even though she openly denounced it every step of the way). Her 1987 debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, was nominated for a Grammy right out the gate for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. She was buzzing around college radio, yet she wouldn’t really take over the entire world until 1990, when her Prince-penned single “Nothing Compares 2 U” became a global chart-topping hit. She sported a shaved head and an equally sharp attitude, and when shit wasn’t adding up — be it world politics, religion, whatever — she was the first to speak out.

Then, there was MC Lyte, the firecracker teen first enlisted to defend her brothers-in-rap, Audio Two, after a deal with Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor (of Salt-N-Pepa fame) went sour. Audio Two were supposed to collaborate with Luv Bug on his 1987 compilation The House That Rap Built. Their single “Top Billin’” was going to be flipped into an alternate version titled “Top Illin’” for the project. Instead, Luv Bug’s artist Antoinette took their slot with her song “I Got An Attitude,” which not only sounded similar to “Top Billin’” but threw a few subliminals MC Lyte’s way, too. The rapper in turn later dropped the diss track “10% Dis,” igniting the years-long war between her and Antoinette.

MC Lyte (aka Lana Moorer) appears in a portrait taken on April 6, 1989 at First Priority Music's offices in Brooklyn, New York.

MC Lyte (aka Lana Moorer) appears in a portrait taken on April 6, 1989 at First Priority Music's offices in Brooklyn, New York.MC Lyte (aka Lana Moorer) appears in a portrait taken on April 6, 1989 at First Priority Music's offices in Brooklyn, New York.Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

The parallel debuts of Sinéad O’Connor and MC Lyte

Both MC Lyte and Sinéad O’Connor had parallel debuts in 1987. With O’Connor it was her debut album; with Lyte it was her debut single “I Cram to Understand U (Sam)” at just 16 years old (though she was only 12 when she actually wrote the song). A year later, Lyte appeared in photographer Janette Beckman’s iconic “Class of ‘88” photo featuring all of the prominent women in hip-hop at the time (signaling a new era for women), and released her debut album Lyte as a Rockin tandem. For any woman rapper who dared to touch the mic, 1988 was a pivotal year. Male rappers were settling into their own, comfortably sporting their crowns at the helm of labels like Def Jam, while female rappers were still fighting for their visibility. There was now room for them to roam, though not a room full enough for them to occupy. For an artist like MC Lyte (and so many of her peers), she was met with a fork in the road: will she be a storyteller on the track, or a fire-breathing battler on the mic? Lyte chose the road less traveled and drove straight ahead, having both in her artillery to make her the perfect emcee to enter a new space with a new artist.

O’Connor asked Lyte to feature on the remix to her 1988 single “I Want Your Hands (On Me).” The remix was released as two versions that both include Lyte’s contribution — a grittier “Street” mix and a “Dance” mix both mixed by Audio Two — a departure from the original version’s pretty straightforward but beautiful alt-rockish sound. “She wanted me to rap on her song and say ‘shut the fuck up,’” Lyte told Rolling Stone in 2018. “She was like, ‘Don’t leave that part out. I need you to say that part.’ And so I arranged some lyrics that said that part.” It was a bold move for an artist about to become a pop priority to enlist a rapper and have her bring her best bars and profanity. But as we learned as she rose to prominence, Sinéad O’Connor made edginess her firm handshake and wasn’t going to compromise that for superstardom.

Sinéad O'Connor - I Want Your Hands On Me (Official Music Video)

“I Want Your Hands (On Me)” is an overlooked but important moment for women in hip-hop

Whether leaning on the funky strings of the Street mix or the synth-heavy bass of the Dance mix, both Lyte’s and O’Connor’s vocals blend seamlessly on “I Want Your Hands (On Me).” You have Sinéad with her ethereal and airy tone, as Lyte cuts through it with her deep and rich voice. The coupling was revolutionary, resulting in a track that deserves to be acknowledged alongside other notable Sinéad O’Connor songs. Not only did we witness Lyte on a rock track but we witnessed Sinéad on a hip-hop track. It felt and sounded as though they were destined to collaborate, and in a world where women in rap music were given slim options to creatively investigate, this song showcased how a little experimentation could be a winning combo.

When we think of the late Sinéad O’Connor’s career, rarely will anyone point to this track. They’ll talk about her ripping up the Pope’s picture on Saturday Night Live, or crying real tears in the “Nothing Compares 2 U” video. More recently, they may make mention of her conversion to Islam or the tragic death of her son. But this moment is often overlooked, and for women in hip-hop it’s by far the most important. In 1989, a year after O’Connor and Lyte’s collaboration, Queen Latifah released her debut studio album All Hail the Queen. The project combines elements of dance and hip-hop, along with other experimental sounds she was feeling following a mini-tour through Europe. Who knows how that classic project may have been received had the waters not been tested by Lyte a year prior? But the collaboration is also important in that it foreshadowed how normal of a practice women in hip-hop and women in other genres would come together and find creative chemistry, oftentimes resulting in something impactful and memorable.

In June this year, writer Paul Meara spoke with MC Lyte for BET. He asked her if there was ever a moment in her career where it didn’t feel like a big deal at first, but in hindsight was legendary. Her answer? Working with Sinéad O’Connor. “I was a little bit early in my career, so it was a little bit of a fog of how important that collaboration was,” she said. “And to this day, I have people walk up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed that collaboration and a lot of it has to do with hip-hop; at that point, who even knew it was gonna sustain as a culture for forever?”

kathy iandoli is a journalist, author, and documentarian, known for her 2019 critically acclaimed book God Save The Queens: The Essential History of Women In Hip-Hop. She is also a professor of Music Business at New York University and based in the New York Metropolitan area.